National Security Network

Remaining Focused on Iran

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Report 23 June 2011

Iran Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

This week Iran is giving off new signs of both the complexity of its internal affairs and the relative weakness of its international position: an inconclusive meeting with Director General Yukiya Amano of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); dwindling regional influence; economic woes and an ongoing power struggle between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Diplomacy, coupled with smart punitive measures like sanctions, offers the best way forward. "Sanctions were never supposed to become an end [unto] themselves, but unfortunately they can easily become so, because they are something we know how to do," said John Limbert, the former top State Department official dealing with Iran, "Changing relations with Iran is much harder [than imposing sanctions]-particularly if the other side is not going to be very cooperative." But it's the best approach. Israel's outgoing intelligence chief has also joined the numerous national security experts in warning that a fourth military campaign in the Middle East would be "stupid," not to mention "messy and protracted."

Internal political divides and a stagnating economy weaken Iran. Kevan Harris of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) notes, "The biggest danger for Iran in 2011 is the combination of higher unemployment and inflation produced by government inaction, unintended consequences of subsidy reform, and dwindling foreign capital caused by banking sanctions." The ongoing battle between Iran's hardliners only exacerbates the country's financial woes. The New York Times reports, "Since April, an unusually public battle has escalated between two men long seen as ideological soul mates - Mr. Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei... ‘The game they are playing now is Ahmadinejad trying to politically maneuver himself to gain more power, while Khamenei tries to contain him,' said Mustafa el-Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. ‘It is a struggle motivated by politics and economics, being presented by some as an ideological and spiritual struggle.' It started in April, when Mr. Ahmadinejad tried to fire Heydar Moslehi, the intelligence minister, and the supreme leader ordered him reinstated. Mr. Ahmadinejad pouted at home for 11 days, returning only after the supreme leader signaled that the president, too, could be replaced." [Kevan Harris, 6/21/11. NY Times, 6/22/11]

Iran's human rights abuses and disregard for international actions highlight regime hypocrisy and weaken the country's influence in a changing Middle East. "Iran will not allow the UN human rights special rapporteur to travel to the country over human rights issues, the official IRNA news agency reported on Sunday [June 19] ...On Friday [June 17], the United Nations Human Rights Council chose former Maldivian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Ahmed Shaheed as its human rights investigator on Iran. The council established the independent post of special rapporteur on human rights in Iran on March 24 to evaluate Iran's human rights record," reports Xinhua. Writing at the time of the March vote, Robin Wright of USIP noted, "The U.N. decision to appoint an investigator to track Iran's human rights violations is the latest move by the international community to increase pressure on Tehran." As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has noted, "Iran's leaders have consistently pursued policies of violence abroad and tyranny at home. In Tehran, security forces have beaten, detained, and in several recent cases killed peaceful protesters, even as Iran's president has made a show of denouncing the violence against civilians in Libya and other places." [Xinhua, 6/19/11. Robin Wright, 3/27/11. Hillary Clinton, 4/12/11]

No clear end to the political struggle in sight. "Ayatollah Khamenei would find it difficult to break with Mr. Ahmadinejad entirely, Iran experts say. The two men appeal to the same constituency among poorer Iranians, so the supreme leader risks alienating his base. For another, pushing Mr. Ahmadinejad into open opposition would create further instability within a system still shaky after the pro-democracy protests that were violently suppressed in 2009... Some analysts suggested that Mr. Ahmadinejad might try to escalate the confrontation with world powers over Iran's secretive nuclear program in an effort to prevent his own early demise. But the current tug of war is expected to continue at least through the parliamentary elections in March 2012, and Mr. Ahmadinejad's allies are likely to be disqualified from running," according to the New York Times. [NY Times, 6/22/11]

Regional partners indicate a willingness to financially "squeeze" Iran. According to the Wall Street Journal, "A leading member of Saudi Arabia's royal family warned that Riyadh could seek to supplant Iran's oil exports if the country doesn't constrain its nuclear program, a move that could hobble Tehran's finances. In closed-door remarks earlier this month, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal also strongly implied that Riyadh would be forced to follow suit if Tehran pushed ahead to develop nuclear weapons and said Saudi Arabia is preparing to employ all of its economic, diplomatic and security assets to confront Tehran's regional ambitions. ‘Iran is very vulnerable in the oil sector, and it is there that more could be done to squeeze the current government,' Prince Turki, a former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and U.K., told a private gathering of American and British servicemen at RAF Molesworth airbase outside London... U.S. officials on Tuesday said they hadn't been notified by Saudi Arabia of any changes in its production plans. But senor Obama administration officials have lobbied Riyadh over the past two years to explore ways to pressure Iran through the energy markets. The White House has specifically asked Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. to guarantee China greater energy supplies in exchange for Beijing cutting off its energy investments in Iran... ‘It is in our interest that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, for their doing so would compel Saudi Arabia, whose foreign relations are now so fully measured and well assessed, to pursue policies that could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences,' Prince Turki said." [WSJ, 6/22/11]

Sanctions are important, but not an end unto themselves - they must be balanced against risks to oil prices, international unity. The Washington Times reports, "Israel's former army chief of staff said Wednesday [June 22] he believes international sanctions are the world's best hope for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Speaking at the Brookings Institution, where he is a visiting fellow, retired Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi described a renewed push on sanctions as Israel's ‘best course of action.' ‘I think it's less costly than all the other options if we are serious in saying that we are going to prevent them from having the bomb,' said Mr. Ashkenazi, who left his post in February after four years at the helm." Yet as the Atlantic Council's Iran Task Force, co-chaired by Senator Chuck Hagel and Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat explain, sanctions have a utility-and a limit. Author of the task force report Barbara Slavin explains, "Piling on yet more stringent and comprehensive penalties-seeking to embargo Iranian oil exports, for example-risks undermining the significant international cooperation the Obama administration has achieved without giving adequate time for the sanctions already imposed to work. ‘If you push too far, you risk undoing a lot of what they have been able to accomplish,' [Kimberly Elliott, a specialist on sanctions at the Center for Global Development] said. ‘If we go for a complete embargo, you're going to lose everything.' Such an embargo would add to pressures on an oil market already roiled by unrest in the Middle East, including reduced production by Libya. The higher the oil price goes, Elliott added, ‘the less likely that countries outside the U.S. will be willing to embrace any stronger sanctions particularly targeted at the energy sector.'" [Washington Times, 6/22/11. Barbara Slavin, Atlantic Council, 6/2/11]

Diplomacy retains key role in maintaining international unity on Iran, even with dim prospects for short-term progress.  Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security Marc Lynch recently wrote, "The time does not look ripe to move directly toward a grand bargain encompassing all the major outstanding regional and political issues dividing Iran from the United States and its allies. Indeed, the prospects for a deal look dimmer than ever... This does not mean that diplomacy should be abandoned, however. Talks are, at a minimum, needed to maintain international consensus regarding the existing sanctions regime. More productively, they are needed to open lines of communication and to shape the bargaining space for larger-scale diplomacy when the time is right. Talks that take place in the near term should focus on small steps that build confidence, not on make-or-break gambits that are likely to fail. A new fuel-swap deal is one possibility, but is not an end unto itself. Such small steps can create the time and space to exchange ideas, build relationships with interlocutors who may be influential in future Iranian governments, and give the opportunity to test new ideas or incentives. Technical working groups should be established for private discussions to begin making progress on achievable goals, such as countering drug trafficking. Talks could also provide a way to supplement the pressure track by offering, conditionally, positive incentives to Iran to change its behavior. This would be a way to change the dynamic by offering an end-state that serves the interests of both sides, beyond the immediate nuclear issues at stake, while also reassuring regional partners." [Marc Lynch, 5/19/11]

Retiring Israeli intelligence chief joins other voices warning that a fourth military campaign would be "stupid" and "messy and protracted." As the New York Times reported last month, "Israel's former intelligence chief has said that a strike on Iran's nuclear installations would be ‘a stupid idea,' adding that military action might not achieve all of its goals and could lead to a long war. The intelligence official, Meir Dagan, who retired in early January after eight years as director of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, made the remarks at a conference [in Jerusalem]." Middle East Progress' Matt Duss further notes that, "The Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Jeffrey White has a long article in the National Interest examining the question, ‘What Would War With Iran Look Like?'

An attack might end quickly with few complications if Iran acts "rationally." We may not like what that means, however: One "rational" ending for the Iranians would be to accept their losses, declare "victory" because the regime survived, lick their wounds, prepare for indirect retaliation, and resume nuclear activities on a clandestine basis. But a war might not end cleanly, and the U.S. administration could find itself in a messy and protracted conflict. This suggests the need for both an expansive approach to net assessment and deep and broad preparation not just of the military but also of the "home front" and the economy, for Iran may choose to fight on these fronts as well as within its own borders and in the region.

[Meir Dagan via NY Times, 5/8/11. Jeffrey White via Matt Duss, 6/22/11]

What We're Reading

America's European allies welcomed President Obama's announcement of troop reductions in Afghanistan with their own withdrawal promises, while the reaction of political leaders in Afghanistan ranged from enthusiasm to disdain.

The threat of a Greek debt default undermining the euro overshadows an EU summit getting under way in Brussels.

The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose detention in April ignited an international uproar, was released on bail.

A magnitude-6.7 earthquake rattled northeast Japan in the same area where a massive quake triggered a deadly tsunami in March, but there were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

Syrian troops massed near the Turkish border, raising tensions with Ankara as President Bashar al-Assad uses increasing military force against a popular revolt.

India and Pakistan held talks on peace and security issues in Islamabad, part of efforts to stabilize South Asia as the United States prepares to draw down troops from Afghanistan.

A bomber whose blast killed at least five people, including himself, at police headquarters in Nigeria's capital is suspected to have been targeting the inspector-general of police.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a regional security conference in Guatemala that the U.S. would increase its aid by more than 10 percent to nearly 300 million dollars.

The Obama administration has decided to release 30 million barrels of oil from the country's emergency reserve as part of a broader international response to lost oil supplies caused by turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly Libya.

Commentary of the Day

George Will warns against the suggestion by John McCain and his cohorts who label as isolationists Republicans who oppose U.S. intervention in Libya's civil war and think a decade of warfare in Afghanistan is enough.

A.J. Rossmiller argues that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is finally shifting in the right direction: toward political negotiations coupled with a focus on counter-terrorism.

Nathan J. Brown writes Egypt had a true Rawlsian moment where anything was possible. But a springtime of freedom has devolved into a summer of selfish politicians and bareknuckled brawls.